August 18, 2014

Down the memory lane at CBSO: a member of staff's view of the concert experience

I casually came across a paper titled "Views of an audience: understanding the orchestral concert experience from player and listener perspectives". It presents the results of a study carried out in Autumn 2010 to explore expectations of audience members of City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and also the players' view of their audience. I had a seasonal job in the marketing office of CBSO from April to August 2010. I was a subscription officer and managed the renewal campaign for the concert season 2010/2011. Hence, I read the paper with great interest!

art and commerce

The first issue that caught my attention was the well known problem of art for art's sake versus commercial awareness and how to cross the ever widening gap between artistic choices and financial realities. Many studies on orchestra players have highlighted a certain players' frustration for the fact that in an orchestra they can't express their personal prowess, they play as part of a whole, feeling a lack of autonomy. So players would like more opportunities for "chamber music" where they can achieve individual visibility and express their unique creativity but we know that a symphony orchestra must play orchestral music. This dissatisfaction is often invisible to the audience or even misunderstood especially by members of the audience who are themselves amateur musicians and gain enjoyment from performing in a group. Amateur musicians tend to value more the satisfaction of performing rather than the actual musical achievement.

So the problem is how to balance the need to provide artistic challenge for the players and give them space for individuality with the need to build a consistent brand identity for the orchestra and promote a concert program appealing to an audience. That's an hard task for professionals in leadership roles within an orchestra management team.

Another common problem among orchestras is the fact that classical music is perceived as a form of high culture and their audience tends to come from a very specific demographic segment, including many elderly people "aging out". Here the need to engage younger audiences and people from a diverse background, offering a repertoire that might be appealing to them.

In fact, audience members do not share all the same musical knowledge: some might be attracted to well known pieces, while others might enjoy a bit of experimentation. The paper highlights the fact that CBSO had embraced this issues offering for example a "first timer's guide" and I can say that this culture of fostering diversity is reflected also in the workplace. When I was offered the job at CBSO I wasn't sure whether I should accept it or not as I had no musical knowledge what so ever. I had no idea what to say if a potential concert subscriber had asked me for advice on concert selection or to comment on the quality of a musical piece.

Symphony Hall Birmingham

Anyway I then decided to take the risk and joined the team. As I got to know my colleagues I found out that many of them had a personal engagement with music. Some were amateur players, others taught music in schools or sang in a choir. I felt a bit uncomfortable....One day this aspect came up in a conversation with my line manager at the time, Eva Wuestum, and I took the chance to express my concern. She then draw my attention to another member of staff who also had no specific music-related expertise/knowledge and said that their marketing team is "mixed" in terms of expertise and profiles exactly as their audience is. Their audience comprised for example amateur musicians, regular concert goers who had attended for years but also first time goers. Each member of staff's contribution was therefore valuable in devising a marketing and communication strategy that could appeal to a broad spectrum of public. That was a great lesson on how marketing should be conceived.

To make the most of my time at CBSO I then started to attend regularly concerts together with a friend from South Korea. The typical programme for our evening out was a pub meal with burger and chips followed by a concert at the Symphony Hall. A rather peculiar mix of low and high cultural tastes! My friend was surprised to notice such an elderly audience and told me that in South Korean classical music is very trendy among young people. It's a way to show they embrace Western culture, perceived as modern and cool, due to its novelty.

Another great thing about working at CBSO was the background music in the office. The orchestra had its rehearsals in the hall at the CBSO center. Our offices were on the third floor of the building and I could hear the music, so nice... Those months of "intense" exposure to classical music have had their effect on me. I have developed an interest for symphony music and enjoy going to concerts in Milan where I now live.

Going back to the paper that has brought back to me all these pleasant memories, the most interesting argument presented was, from my point of view, the ongoing struggle to balance the social requirements typical of a charitable and publicly funded institution with the need to be financially viable, to pursue innovation and make both the audiences and players feel fulfilled in their engagement with the orchestra.

art for art

During my academic studies I had heartily embraced the idea of art for art's sake as a "guiding principle" but as I have progressed through my career, taking up a role with more responsibility within an art organisation I have to admit that my attitude has changed. The reality of managing an art organisation has proved to be a whole different matter from philosophical ideas studied at uni.

I still believe in art for art's sake as I guess this must be a shared belief of any person who has chosen a professional career in this field. However, I am now more aware of financial constrains and believe that the pursuit of creativity and innovation can make sense only if it is accompanied by sound management, keeping an eye on the "bottom line". I don't want art organisations to make a loss, I want them to thrive!

Click here to read the full article "Views of an audience: Understanding the orchestral concert experience from player and listener perspectives" by Stephanie E. Pitts, Melissa C. Dobson, Kate Gee and Christopher P. Spencer.

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